VisitBritain’s annual global travel trade event continues to be virtual, and that may be here to stay.
There was a time ExploreGB, VisitBritain’s global in-person flagship event, was all about the “razzle-dazzle,” said Patricia Yates, CEO of VisitBritain/VisitEngland. “We’ve had knights and castles and huge entertainment programs,” she said.
Since 2014, the event has brought together hand-picked buyers from across the globe and members of the UK travel trade. But in 2020, the pandemic halted that. VisitBritain had to pivot ExploreGB to a virtual format, and that continues today.
ExploreGB brought together more than 200 global buyers in February to connect online and do business with 320 tourism industry suppliers across Britain.
Despite the event focusing on attracting in-person events to the UK, it was held virtually. So, why was this important gathering online in 2023 and not in person when the Covid pandemic has dissipated?
“A month before, we had a small in-person gathering where we brought international buyers from all over Britain. I think there is nothing that beats face-to-face. Going around and seeing a destination is better for building relationships. It was a cracking event,” said Yates.” Honestly, this is a debate we’re having in the organization.”
ExploreGB was virtual last year and was free for British suppliers to participate. “We recruited the international buyers and connected them,” explained Yates.
What was the advantage? “There is no cost, and that means that smaller businesses can come on and do a program of meetings, meet buyers perhaps for the first time, get to know the market. Their only investment? Time,” said Yates. “Will this ever replace face-to-face? No, I don’t think it will.”
The jury is still out on whether next year’s ExploreGB will be virtual or in-person. “Regardless, we must be mindful that many tourism businesses don’t have reserves and don’t have money to spend. So, if we are doing events, we must make them cost-effective and deliver the best buyers.”
The Industry Bounces Back
Meetings and incentives are back, said Yates. “We were surprised that the meetings and incentives business came back so quickly. We’ve seen really strong interest and a solid bounce back. And I think this time last year, we weren’t so sure it would be quite like that,” said Yates.
The fact that these groups usually meet during shoulder season and spend more than leisure business makes them attractive.
Hybrid meetings are still popular, said Yates, a holdover from the pandemic. “Associations depend a great deal on their funding from holding annual meetings. They drive a great deal of revenue. It has been demonstrated that a hybridized meeting, where there’s a real-life component and a virtual component, has given associations, in particular, an ability scale and reach more of their membership. That drives more revenue for their association to focus on their core purpose,” explained Yates.
So, a meeting that was 400 in-person pre-pandemic could now be 1,000 people, of which 400 are in-person, and 600 are virtual. “It was always thought that virtual would be the death of in-person, but that is not the case. It’s integrated quite well now,” said Yates. “It will be interesting to see if this model continues to flourish into the future.”
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